Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

BOB LECKIE (HMP Thorn Cross)

BOB LECKIE (HMP Thorn Cross)

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AWARD WINNER 2015-16: Bob is the Land Based Activities Manager at HMP/YOI Thorn Cross. He wins an Award for his passionate, creative and inspirational approach to the job, and his role in not only dramatically improving the prison’s physical landscape, but also transforming its farms and gardens into an immersive education and skills training environment for an often hard-to-reach group of prisoners. [Bob also receives the Keith Bromley Award for Education & Skills Training.]

Bob LeckieBob Leckie, the Land Based Activities Manager at HMP/YOI Thorn Cross, has taken traditional expectations of his work and transformed them in ways that have brought significant benefits to staff and prisoners alike.

His lead nominator, Michael Povall, Deputy Governor at Thorn Cross, explains: “All too often farms and gardens are used in prisons across the country to place prisoners who are deemed incapable or unwilling to actively engage in more demanding work. On appointment Bob was determined not to allow the philosophy of others to continue at Thorn Cross. With consistency and creativity he has led his team to ensure that our grounds are maintained to the highest of standards and equally importantly that prisoners gain a significant sense of purpose and personal pride in their work and achievements. Bob lives and breathes his vocation. His extreme passion and love of his work is shared with whomever shows an interest.”

Michael describes how Manchester College, the GOOP [‘Greener On the Outside of Prisons’] project and the local community have all benefited from Bob’s enthusiasm and worked alongside him to develop meaningful, qualitative partnerships. Meanwhile local schools and churches have enjoyed ground improvements via Community Service Volunteer projects which, as Michael notes, has both “enhanced our reputation as a community prison and raised prisoners self esteem.”

Bob’s “drive, determination and focus”, says Michael, “promotes genuine purposeful activity for prisoners.” In particular, he notes that while “many prisoners have apathy towards traditional qualifications”, Bob “thought deeply about this and how he could change their mindsets and attitudes. He worked with partners to address the problem by bringing education into his work area on an outreach basis. He saw the potential in a disused storage space and persuaded managers and the Works Department to help him to redevelop the block into a classroom. At minimal cost, involving prisoner’s ideas and labour we now have a bright and airy classroom that proudly displays their work and achievements in a fit for purpose contemporary environment.”

Bob’s thinking involved “a fresh approach to engage prisoners in learning” because “he wanted to bring to life and make real how functional skills are essential for all.” His approach was ingenious. “Football pitches became his stage. The penny dropped with many prisoners who now understand previously boring mathematics such as diameters, radius, right angles and parallel lines,” says Michael. “Flower pots, water butts and compost heaps were used to understand weights and measures. Bob’s resilience, selflessness and diligence came to the fore and he has inspired many prisoners to gain qualifications in Horticulture that they never thought possible.”

Michael cites Manchester College data showing that Thorn Cross is helping its offenders in literacy and numeracy at rates “above the national average.” Noting that “the lowest levels of skills were evident in prisoners in farms and gardens”, Michael says “Bob’s work has significantly contributed to help all prisoners – particularly those with learning difficulties [an area gaining increasing recognition across the sector] and mental health issues.” Bob’s work was endorsed by a recent OLASS (Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service) peer audit team, too, who noted that “it is rare to see such understanding of the need for punctuality and regular attendance and most impressive of all such excellent behaviour”.

Others impressed by Bob’s work include the Prisons Minister, Andrew Selous MP, who was described as “hugely impressed” and who asked to be kept updated of the progress of future horticultural developments. The North West Deputy Director of Custody (DDC) for the National Offender Manager Service (NOMS), Alan Scott, has also taken a keen interest in the GOOP Project, and, Michael reports, “is delighted by Bob’s work. Alan frequently visits our farms and gardens and commends the therapeutic, learning environment – viewing it as best practice.”

Meanwhile Thorn Cross recently hosted the Open Prisons Forum and, once again, Bob “seized the opportunity to showcase his work. He oozed with pride whilst presenting his work to Prison Governors who were immensely impressed,” says Michael, concluding that “there was a consensus that they all needed a ‘Bob’ in their respective establishments!”

Another expert colleague, Peter Riley, a City and Guilds Verifier, visited the Horticulture course in June 2015 and reported that the practical work, portfolios and assessments were among the best he had seen. He particularly praised the joint working between Horticulture, Farms and Gardens and Functional skills.

As Michael says, “it is really pleasing to receive such positive feedback from independent people who recognise and acknowledge quality when they see it. Bob is an exceptional manager who goes way beyond his job description and makes him a unique, stand out person.”

Pia Sinha is both the Local Butler Trust Champion and Governor at Thorn Cross, and wholeheartedly endorsed Bob’s nomination. (Full disclosure: although Pia sits as a Member of the Butler Trust Awarding Panel, as with all cases where a panel member has personal knowledge of, or involvement with, a nominee, she took no part in the relevant discussion or decision-making process around Bob’s nomination).

Talking about “the exceptional work done by Bob in our Farms and Gardens department”, Pia wrote “we are fortunate within the open estate to benefit from open spaces and the opportunity to make the otherwise austere prison environment beautiful and calming. The impact that this has on the well-being of offenders and staff is immense. While many open prisons have this advantage, Bob’s work has gone above and beyond aesthetics.”

She describes how the Thorn Cross Farms and Gardens team “provides meaningful employment to over 40 offenders. These offenders are not only learning about horticulture, they are accessing qualifications in literacy, numeracy and IT while they are at it. Through the creative techniques described in the nomination, we are getting offenders excited about learning in a way that they never have before. Qualifications in both horticulture and functional skills greatly enhances their ability to gain employment on release and has an immeasurable impact on their self-esteem. Bob has driven this agenda forward. Without his energy and drive, we would not have made this a reality.” As Pia emphasises, Bob’s approach “has never been used within horticultural departments in the service. When Governors of other open prisons heard about this, they were very keen to introduce similar schemes in their prisons. Bob’s ideas have therefore not only impacted on Thorn Cross’ offenders but also benefitted others.”

Meanwhile, Bob’s interest in sustainability is described by Pia as being “contagious!” She reports that he has introduced ‘nature trails’ for family visits, “so that when children come on family visits, they can walk through the nature trail with their fathers, who work in farms and gardens, and their fathers can proudly show their children what they have achieved within a learning environment. We felt that this was an inspired idea of Bob’s. Not only was this a very constructive and family friendly way to engage offender’s families, but it provided fathers an opportunity to make their families proud. One child said during a visit ‘I have come to visit my father at work’. This shift in perspective from seeing his father as a man out to work must have been so important in helping him build his family ties.”

The growing list of distinguished visitors impressed by Bob’s Farms and Gardens area, and seeing its “exceptional contribution to the rehabilitative culture at Thorn Cross” has in turn “inspired all our staff and created a movement within Thorn Cross – a movement of pride and belief. Not only has Bob made us so proud of the work he has done, but also enabled our staff to get motivated and get behind making Thorn Cross great. For this as Governor, I am truly grateful. Bob is so deserving of this nomination.”

Pia sees Bob’s “motivation for everything” lying in “enhancing outcomes for prisoners. It’s this creativity, this tenacity and this passion that makes Bob stand out. Bob has created a ‘feel good’ factor in Thorn Cross. His work in the community has greatly enhanced our reputation as a community prison, his work with offenders has greatly enhanced their self-worth and self-esteem and his work within the prison has greatly boosted our morale!” She concludes: “I am so very proud of Bob… He is a man whose work needs to be seen, whose passion needs to be witnessed and whose story needs to be told.”

Bob’s thoughtful approach is evident in his own description of his work. “Farms and Gardens was traditionally a place where prisoners were placed when no other activity space was available and was seen as a bit of a last resort. Work was therefore needed to make it a more appealing place to be and to offer a more interesting, purposeful workplace. The movement to a resettlement prison also meant Thorn Cross now had an older population which presented new challenges. One of the areas farms and gardens had difficulty in engaging prisoners with was the literacy and numeracy and getting them to attend education. I decided to introduce a functional skills classroom at the location and to work in small groups trying to encourage them rather than pressuring them to attend for a morning or afternoon session and to also take the lessons outside into the work area in trying to help them understand what was being taught and how it made sense in a working environment which would help them on the outside.”

His creative thinking is shown in way he and his staff used the marking out of the football pitch and flower beds to show geometry and angles and different size pots to help teach volume. His sensitivity to those in his care is clear when he describes how “We let them take time out if it is getting a bit too much and let them return when they felt a bit more relaxed. This has really worked with people who for example had dyslexia or dyspraxia or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) who otherwise would have come out of an education classroom or become disruptive.” Bob also introduced mentors on the activity who could attend and help with the lesson. “They also went on to work with other prisoners as team leaders on specific projects I developed and to work in small groups helping prisoners along and present as positive role models.”

Meanwhile Bob facilitated the reading group from the library “who would also come down and read from a novel with the prisoners which assisted their reading skills. Some prisoners who couldn’t read would sit and listen and ask to join in later.” Elsewhere, Bob has organised the refurbishment of two poly tunnels which now supply plants and vegetables for sale through the staff mess and started constructing 22 raised beds as part of the new growing programme. “These activities”, he reports, “will support our new farm shop project which I have worked tirelessly to gain planning permission in order to open to the public in time for Spring 2016.”

He is also planning a new area for expanding ‘the chickens project’, “which ran with a small number for a couple of years but now will be expanded with new sheds to house up to 200.” Bob’s team offer City and Guilds qualifications for pedestrian and ride-on mowers as well as brush cutting and strimmers, alongside a Royal Horticultural Society course, via the Manchester College, up to level 2, which the RHS notes “provides a route to employment in professional horticulture.”

Bob emphasises the value of “giving staff and prisoners more responsibility for areas”, thus ensuring “it becomes more personal thus engaging them more and giving them a sense of achievement and satisfaction and also reducing the amount of mindless damage and vandalism.”

The numbers are impressive, with a third of prisoners in Land Based Activities improving their functional skills and gaining qualifications. Meanwhile a recent area audit noted that “those with mental health and emotional wellbeing issues” were also making significant achievements. Bob also ensures his staff are “caring in their dealings with prisoners and refer them on to other departments to assist them when necessary, such as the chaplaincy when they have experienced a bereavement or have problems at home.” The staff also monitor and support those with substance misuse use by providing reports of their progress or referring them to the substance misuse team.

Bob cites a series of specific gains from the GOOP project, including ensuring prisoners have increased responsibility, improved emotional wellbeing as well as mental and physical health, alongside gains in self esteem, pride and resilience. As Bob points out, “the opportunity to nurture… may be the first time in their lives that [offenders] have experienced this.” Another benefit is that offenders develop their independence while gaining skills which will assist with employability on release. As colleagues from different organisations are brought together to network and share ideas, so too are staff given a sense of pride.

Bob also describes how his team “are currently having huge success in selling bug houses, bird tables and planters made from recycled pallets.” He has plans to create a workshop specifically for this, as well as to expand their cut flower area which is also extremely successful. Other plans include a hydroponic approach to producing micro salads for local hotels and businesses.  Bob’s overall approach, he says, lies in “trying to make the whole enterprise a self sustaining project which, in the current climate of budget cuts, can only help us continue to provide meaningful and purposeful activity in an area which everyone enjoys and will benefit the prison and the local community.”

He concludes with his personal commitment to “provide the training, skills and knowledge to staff and prisoners alike to effectively take them and Thorn Cross forward and able to compete in the challenging times ahead.”

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